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Donald Trump May Need New Playbook Against Surging Ben Carson

As polls show Ben Carson catching – and even surpassing – Donald Trump, Trump’s attacks against his closest challenger have intensified.
Image: Republican U.S. presidential candidates Carson and Trump talk during a break at the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley
Republican U.S. presidential candidates Dr. Ben Carson (L) and businessman Donald Trump talk during a commercial break at the second official Republican presidential candidates debate of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California, United States, September 16, 2015. LUCY NICHOLSON / Reuters

As polls show Ben Carson catching – and even surpassing – Donald Trump, the brash businessman's attacks against his closest challenger have intensified. His remarks could backfire for being redundant, vague and hypocritical.

While Trump has been known for direct and personal verbal lobs against his opponents in the campaign, this is the first time he has found himself faced with another outsider who has risen above him in some recent key polls. And his strategy so far has yet to have any impact on Carson as the former pediatric neurosurgeon has refused to take the bait.

On MSNBC’s Morning Joe Tuesday, Trump was quick to question Carson's appeal, insisting that under scrutiny, it won't continue. A “a lot of things will come out” about Carson's record, Trump said.

Trump challenged Carson's strict anti-abortion position, which Trump said wasn't always the same.

“Ben was pro-abortion not so long ago as everybody has told me,” Trump said.

Trump was most likely referring to Carson’s tenure as a pediatric neurosurgeon when he referred pregnant patients with genetic abnormalities to doctors who also perform abortions – a decision Carson defends pointing to the importance of “qualified medical supervision.”

But the problem with Trump’s statement is that his own record is not very consistent. In an interview on NBC’s “Meet the Press” in 1999, Trump said that while he “hates” the idea of abortion he is “very pro-choice.”

Eric Fehrnstrom, former communications director for Mitt Romney's 2012 presidential run, said, "Donald Trump's checkered history on abortion pretty much disqualifies him from going after Carson for his change of position. It would be more effective if the attack came from someone with credibility on the issue, like Mike Huckabee or Rick Santorum."

Trumps attacks against Carson, who took the lead for the first time in a national poll since Trump jumped in the race, are also repetitive. By saying he’s "low energy” like he did in New Hampshire Monday, he’s regurgitating a line he used against Jeb Bush.

“By the way Carson is lower energy than Bush. I don’t get it. I saw him being interviewed -- he's lower energy than Bush,” Trump said.

Reed Galen, former deputy campaign manager for John McCain, said Trump’s attacks on Carson might not have the same impact on Carson as it does on Bush because people like Carson.

“At 85 percent favorability, I’m not sure even Donald trump has the wherewithal to take him out,” Galen said.

Trump’s attacks against Carson have also been vague, alluding to issues that haven't yet been raised.

“I think Ben Carson has a lot of problems with his record. If you look at his record, including going back in past and, you know, those problems are going to start to come out,” Trump said in his “Morning Joe” interview. “I think people will look at that and they will look at lots of other things including what happened in hospitals and what he was working on and a lot of things I hear.”

Trump’s campaign did not respond to a request for clarification, but Galen called the allusions to the unknown “weasel words.”

“Even a slightly more traditional campaign would back up what he says with facts,” Galen added.

Another line of attack has been over Carson's religion. Again he didn't give a direct hit but insinuated that Carson's Seventh Day Adventist faith is curious.

"I'm Presbyterian," Trump said Saturday in Florida. "Boy, that's down the middle of the road, folks, in all fairness. I mean, Seventh-day Adventist, I don't know about. I just don't know about."

But Trump placing doubts on Carson's religion might not endear him to Iowans - a state where Carson is now polling better than Trump - whose evangelical voters are numerous, influential and active.

The Des Moines Register recently wrote that Iowans aren't buying into Trump's attack on Carson's religion.

On Wednesday, Carson and Trump will be on the same stage at the third Republican debate on CNBC. Trump could come armed with more attacks against Carson or some proof behind them. Or not.